Asian groceries, ceramic wrapped and balanced on wooden palettes, fill the warehouse parking lot in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Throughout the day, forklift drivers scoop each palette and load them onto trucks owned and operated by Chinese immigrants, who make up less than 2.3 percent of the 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States.
“People immigrated from China. We have to work and try to make more money to get a better living,” says Tom Tang, a 48-year old truck driver from Canton, China. Many of the Chinese truck drivers, including Tang, immigrated from China or Malaysia to the U.S. in search of a better life.
The Chinese truck drivers say they have no choice but to pursue trucking because education, immigration status, and language pose significant barriers, affecting their ability to obtain other forms of employment and disqualifying them from jobs that offer benefits. “You don’t have a choice,” Chee Phang, a 57-year old Chinese Malaysian truck driver, says.
Some of the most demanding parts of the job are the long hours and delivery deadlines. Not only do over-the-road truckers have to sustain their attention and drive for more than 10 hours per day, but they have to load their own freights with products to make an on-time delivery. A typical one-way trip is roughly 15 to 16 hours. New York to Chicago is one such route.
Truck drivers spend five to six days on the road. On average, Tang says that he gets four to five hours of sleep per night before driving another eight to nine hours. If they’re fortunate enough, they can return home on Sundays to spend time with family and friends or catch up on sleep.
One of the biggest challenges of truck driving is social isolation. Don Wong, a 68-year-old Chinese truck driver from Hong Kong, explains that being away from home often impacted his former two marriages, both of which have ended in divorce.
“The times she needs me, I’m not there,” says Wong. Not getting enough sleep exacerbates mental health issues, including stress, anxiety, and depression.
Tang, Phang, and Wong were employees of T.C. Lee Distributors, formerly owned by T.C. Lee, before the company retired in 2019. Since the company’s closure, Tang has been operating his own truck independently as an owner-operator and needs to purchase his own health insurance. Not all truck drivers can afford it.
“I want to buy it [health insurance], but it is $600 a month for the insurance. How can I buy? Expensive,” Phang yells in Cantonese. Without insurance, many of the truck drivers cannot afford to see a doctor, let alone a mental health professional.
Seeking out a mental health professional for Chinese truck drivers like Wong can be especially challenging given the stigma associated with mental health in Chinese culture. Wong says he doesn’t like to share parts of his life with other people.
Despite Asians being the poorest racial and ethnic group in New York City, Chinese immigrant truck drivers and their mental health are overlooked by the New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, where Asians are only given 0.2 percent of social service contracts, or funding for mental health.
After Tang, Wong, and Phang finish their interviews, they finish loading the palettes into their trailers before hopping in their truck. Each of them pulls out of the warehouse one by one, disappearing into the night until their wave goodbye fades into the distance. They won’t be back for another week, when they will have to start all over again.